Monday, March 31, 2008

Article from Christian Century: Handshake Ritual

I just read a very 'on' article in Christian Century, written by Martin B. Copenhaver, called "Handshake Ritual." Reflections on the practice of greeting the congregation at the door after worship.

"Worship is over and I am standing in the doorway shaking hands. In front of me is a couple I do not recall seeing before. I say, "Good morning! I'm Martin Copenhaver." By my manner and my tone of voice you might think that I am greeting long-lost friends, rather than introducing myself to these people for the first time. The woman of the couple responds, "Good to meet you. We are Jill and Bob Townsend."

"Welcome. So good to have you here." I think, Focus on their names. Catch the names before they simply drop to the floor. But while I am chatting with the new couple I see out of the corner of my eye the person next in line, whose grandmother just died. I give a nod in her direction to let her know that I want to speak with her, but not yet. I need to be attentive to the new couple for at least a few more moments: "Are you new to the area or just new to us?" What is their name? Townsend! Whew. Still got it. My thoughts spin back toward the one who is next in line and I begin to second-guess myself. Wait, was it her grandmother who died or her grandfather? Actually, I think it was her grandfather. And then my mind lights ever so briefly on the person she is talking to, a parishioner I have not seen in worship in some time. I think, It's been, what . . . almost a year? I wonder why she is back today. But I need to stay focused on the new couple. Quick, file away their names before you lose them. Townsend. I can remember that because they are "new in town." Jill Townsend says, "We've lived here for years, but we're looking at other churches." OK, Townsend, as in "not new in town." I say, "Well, I hope you can stay for some coffee." She smiles and says, "Not today, but I'm sure we will be back." I look for someone to introduce them to, but they are out the door before I have a chance.

Next is the woman who lost her grandfather. Or was it her grandmother? I say, "I'm so sorry to hear about your loss." She says, "Thanks. I so appreciate that. But it was a blessing." I ask, "Was your whole family able to gather for the service?" It's a rather lame question, but I am stalling for time, hoping that she will drop a personal pronoun. Before she can respond, my teenage son comes up behind me and drapes his arms over my shoulders: "Dad, you know you want to give me money so I can get something at the bake sale." Normally I would remind him that this is no way to ask me for something, but I don't have time for a lesson in manners. "Sure, Todd, here." I give him a ten-dollar bill. It's all I have. "Thanks, Dad."

I turn back to the grieving grandchild. She says, "Yes, the whole clan gathered. He would have been very pleased." I should have remembered that it was her grandfather. I say, "Well, I know you were very close to him. We will continue to hold you in our prayers." She responds, "Thank you. And you know Mary, don't you?" indicating the member of the flock who has been missing in action. And I do remember her very well. I say, "Of course. It's great to see you, Mary." Mary says, "Yeah, well, I haven't been around for a while. There's just been a whole lot going in my life." I think, OK, there's something to follow up on. I say, "Well, it would be good to catch up when you have a chance." She says, "Sure. Any time." Using a common pastoral way of closing a conversation, I say, "I'll call you." And then I hope I remember to call.

A teenager approaches with a cast on his right arm. I search my memory: Did he have that cast on last week? I playfully extend my right elbow and he does the same. As our elbows touch we share a little laugh. I say, "How are you hanging in there?" He responds, "OK. I broke it playing soccer." So the cast is something new. I ask him how it happened and he tells me the story. When he is finished I put my hand on his shoulder and say, "I'm so sorry. But you should see the other guy, right? I'm just glad you play soccer instead of tennis so that you can keep at it."

A man about ten years younger than I, who has been waiting in the wings, suddenly steps forward for his moment: "You don't remember me, do you?" He does look rather familiar, but in the way a person can remind you of someone else you know. He bails me out: "I was in the first confirmation class you taught, 25 years ago." I say, "Of course I remember you. Absolutely. But I have become very bad with names in my old age. Help me with yours." He replies, "I'm Scott Harrison." Shaking my head in contrition, I say, "Of course you're Scott Harrison. Absolutely, I remember you. That was a great confirmation class. How have you been?" Then, after a few more snippets of conversation, I offer him my hand again as a way to draw this conversation to a close.

Someone else approaches who says, "I really have to take issue with your sermon today." I say, "The sermon is just the beginning. Then comes the conversation, which often is the best part." He says, "Well, maybe that's a conversation we'll have." I say, "Great. I welcome that. Will you call me?" In this instance I want to put the onus on him to call.

Oh, I so relate!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I've Bookmarked

I'm enjoying vacation days post-Easter Sunday, so rather than be productive myself, I thought I'd share links with you to several posts I've had bookmarked:

Michelle at 33 Names of Grace has a post about teaching Spiritual Practices in her congregation. She talks about helping people experience the holy. I think people long to be helped to find holy places. We're so interested in demythologizing things that have been made holy (which is certainly necessary/good/important sometimes), but I think sometimes we go so far and make it so difficult to find and claim and dwell in holy places.

Christopher Gudger-Raines at Among the Hills always has thoughtful lectionary-based haikus, but I especially liked his "Haiku from Hell: Peeps Edition" for Easter.

At the Christianity Today blog, there's a post about atheists in the war, and the (changing?) role of faith for deployed military personnel.

Deb at Palabras de Deb has been sharing some of the liturgy she's written lately, which I often bookmark and hope I'll remember next year, because I really like it. For example, here's a Palm/Passion Sunday liturgy that's excellent. She also has a post up about a pastoral letter from Bishop MaryAnn Swenson, a list of 10 concrete things General Conference could do to facilitate discipleship.

At Eric's Blog, methoblogger Eric Helms asks if you've ever used the biblical practice of casting lots to make a decision. Here's a confession: Around junior high, I was starting to get the sinking feeling I was going to end up in the ministry, something at the time rather unappealing to me. I would ask God to give me the answer, via card games, my version of casting lots. Guess what? Becoming a pastor was the chosen answer every time.

John of Locusts and Honey linked to this post about reflecting on the Eliot Spitzer scandal that I found thought-provoking: "There's an interesting episode in the life of Jesus of Nazareth in which the people were amazed at his character, his integrity and his incredible accomplishments. But John's gospel says, "Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people..." (John 2:24)

What did Jesus know about all people?

It's the same thing you know about yourself.

No matter what you may tell others (i.e. "I'm basically a good person."), there is something at the core of your being that seems to stain even your best intentions. Like Gollum in the caves of Tolkien's trilogy, it dwells within the heart and mind of all. Rarely does this beast reach full ferocity and manifest itself so publicly in some heinous act of cruelty or depravity. But it crouches at the doorstep for each of us, insinuating itself into our daily lives.

The distance between you, or me, and Eliot Spitzer is not so great as we would imagine, or wish."

Happy Reading!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Thoughts

I've been finishing up my Easter sermon today, and thinking about the trouble with Easter.

The trouble with Easter, I think, is not that believing in Jesus' resurrection is so hard. We've believed in stranger things happening. It's in believing that we can have new life. That's the hard part. God is powerful, but powerful enough to actually change me? Change the world? Ha!

But if new life isn't actually possible for us, Easter doesn't mean anything.

My brother has a post just up that seems very Easter-y to me, along these lines. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reflections: District Day with Eric Law

Last Sunday (the 9th) I attended another district learning day, this time with Rev. Eric Law. I've heard Eric Law speak before, at a GBCS meeting, and I wondered what this session would be like among clergy and lay people on the district.

Here are some of my thoughts/notes on the event:

* Scheduling note: Sunday afternoons (the workshop went from 3-8:30 with a dinner break) are a brutal time to schedule a workshop like this. I enjoyed the presentation, but I find myself usually exhausted on Sunday afternoons, and by the end of the time together, through no fault of the presenter, I found myself trying very, very hard to remain focused...

* What do we need for competent leadership in a diverse changing world:
- Self-awareness, and understanding privilege and power, understanding from cultural background
- appreciation of differences as opportunities, rather than as problems
- commitment to pluralistic understanding, still able to make decisions
- active theological reflection on diversity issues related to self, others, community, creation
- discipline in applying skills, models, etc., that will increase inclusiveness in situations
- ability to guide/support community to move toward change faithfully in response to changing environment
- knowledge/skills in technology to enhance interpersonal communication and to build inclusive community (medium is neutral)

Responsibility for what you say – “I” statements. Avoid should. I notice, I wonder. When I _(situation)_____, I feel _(reaction)_________, because ___________.
Empathetic listening
Sensitive to differences in communication styles
Ponder what you hear before you speak
Examine your assumptions and perceptions
Confidentiality (keep it!)
Trust ambiguity – not here to debate who is right or wrong

Mutual Invitation. Leader shares first. Invites someone else to share. If invited, can pass for now, or pass, or respond. But if pass, can still invite. Do until everyone has been invited.

Cultural make-up
External cultures – explicitly learned, conscious, easily changed, objective knowledge (see, hear, taste, touch)

Internal cultures – implicitly learned, unconscious, difficult to change, subjective knowledge (beliefs, values, patterns, myths)

The first step to becoming inter-culturally sensitive is to know your own culture.

What usually happens: Culturally dominant group doesn’t have to do own iceberg work, because they’re dominant, their iceberg is society’s iceberg. (this isn't a good thing)

Organizational Iceberg
Every church has a profile of what a good member looks like, though they’d never say so out loud.

Exclusive Boundary Function:
Prototype – ‘look’ like us – you’re in
Legal – If you follow rules, you can be in without prototype. Watched. Pressure.
Political – have to get along with powerful people/group

Inclusive Boundary Function: Has a grace margin outside the safe zone
Covenant of time. Ask for time. Doesn’t happen by self.
Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not (Set Ground Rules)
Images and Concepts of God (Study Scripture Together)

I really liked Law's concept of "grace margins" and Jesus always working to make a bigger "grace margin" for people. He talked about churches needing to be better at creating grace margins, spaces of interaction for people in the church and people out of the church to be together.

Methoblogger Joe Tiedemann also has some reflections on Law's visit to his district.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cat Blogging: Ella Writes a Sermon

This is how I found my cat, Ella, earlier tonight:

Maybe she'll have some ideas for my Easter sermon.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Religion at Work has this interesting article up about religion in the workplace. They mention Corporate Chaplains of America, which I'd never heard of before.

"Rob Skinner did not expect to find a chaplain in the office when he started his sales job at Piedmont Air Conditioning in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I was a little worried because I didn't want God shoved down my throat," says Skinner, 38, a self-described liberal Christian.

Turns out Dwayne Reece, from the nonprofit, nondenominational Corporate Chaplains of America -- which provides Christian chaplains for companies that request them -- offered encouraging words instead.

Piedmont had hired him after the death of an employee, and it worked out so well, he's been visiting for nine years. "Having him there really makes you feel that the company cares," Skinner says.

Religion, like sex and politics, once was considered inappropriate watercooler talk. Not anymore. Prayer sessions, religious diversity groups and chaplains like Reece, along with rabbis and imams, have become more common across corporate America in the past decade."

What do you think? Obviously, as a pastor, I don't have to worry about how to fit religion into my profession in this sense. And in fact, including most of my part-time and summer jobs, I've hardly ever worked in a way totally unconnected to the church. Maybe when I was a lifeguard at the Y in high-school, but even the Y has Christian foundations. What about those of you who work in other settings? Do you think there is space for your faith in your workplace? Have you encountered a corporate chaplain?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Question: Worship Services

I've been thinking about worship services. OK, I'm usually thinking about worship services in some corner of my mind, but I've been specifically thinking about time/day/style of worship services.

How many worship services does your church have?
What time are they at? Day of the week?
Traditional? 'Contemporary'? Something else?
Which service do most people attend?
How long is your service?
Is your current offering of services the same as it's always been?
How did you go about making a change if it isn't the same as it's always been?

Monday, March 03, 2008

You're So Transparent

I've been following the primaries for the Presidency with great interest, like many of us in the US and around the world that have been caught up in this most interesting of election years, when the presidency has been really up for grabs more than in elections for many years past. I've just spent a few minutes reading up on the latest skirmishes between the candidates: who will be the best president at 3am, how race and sex are impacting the vote, who Mexicans are rooting for (since statistics show almost half or perhaps more than half of Mexicans have a relative living in the states,) and, most recently, this back and forth between Clinton and Obama on NAFTA and conversations with Canadian officials.

What are people looking for in a president? I suspect what many of us would like most is the one thing I think is hardest to find in any of the candidates: transparency. What-you-see-is-what-you-get. What-I-say-is-actually-what-I-mean. I would love to be sure that the candidate I vote for would actually do what he/she says they will do once in office. Remember in January when Hillary Clinton got a bit weepy at a question about how she was holding up? Soon after, Clinton had some of her biggest primary victories today. Were people responding to what they saw as transparency, finally, in a usually very controlled candidate?

I wish people seemed more interested in telling the truth, owning up to the facts. Back in December, when I reviewed The Ethics of What We Eat, I wrote that Mason and Singer, the authors, focus on the lack of transparency in the food industry. No one wants us to know what's really going on when it comes to how our food is prepared. Why? Well, if we knew, probably less of us would eat meat and other animal products. Otherwise, there'd be no need for all the secrecy, right?

In January, Greg Hazelrig wrote about a Barna Group book unchristian, a book I keep meaning to get to. The book takes a look at what non-Christians think of Christians. The dominant response: Christians are hypocritical. I know that's not quite the same as lacking transparency, but I think there is some overlap there. Again, it's about a gap between what we say and what we do.

As I think about the approaching General Conference for the UMC, one of the things I wish we would see more of is transparency in our actions. Cozying up to certain delegates in order to win their votes? Just say so. Offering a breakfast or lunch or dinner because you want to push a certain agenda? Please be clear about it. Attending mostly because you'll later be running for the episcopacy? Out with it! In the end, are you going to vote based on what's best for you personally, even if it conflicts with your stated ideals and theology? Just say so.

Why is it so hard for us to be transparent? Authentic? Honest? As people of faith, I think we're called to examine the reasons behind what we do. Why do we want more people to attend our churches? Is it because we have this good news we want to share, or because with more people our bills are easier to pay? Do we want young people in our churches because we value who they are and want them to experience God's unconditional love, or are we looking to our own survival? Why do we do what we do?

Of course, sometimes, we aren't even really transparent with ourselves. Recently I've been making some tough decisions for myself, and was getting really far down the road on deciding one way when I realized I just wasn't being transparent, even with myself, about the reasons behind my decisions. Power and status and position were playing into my decision-making in ways I was not ready to admit even to myself.

Maybe we're afraid to be transparent because we're afraid of what will happen when people can see right through us, or right into us. Maybe we're afraid of looking at what actually motivates us and moves us into action, or what keeps us from acting when we should. But personally, I'm aiming for some more transparency. After all, we are created in God's image. Hopefully, the more transparent we become, the more apparent God within us will become to those around us. And then maybe we people of faith won't seem like such a hypocritical bunch after all...